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100 Greatest Guitarists

They built their own guitars, stabbed speaker cones with pencils, shattered instruments and eardrums — all in search of new ways to make the guitar cry, scream, whisper, shout and moan

Rolling Stone May 17, 2011
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50. Pete Townshend
Pete Townshend destroyed guitars almost as much as he played them in the mid- and late 1960s, smashing his Rickenbackers and Strats in frenzies of ritual murder at the end of the Who’s stage shows. But he also pioneered the power chord on the Who’s 1965 debut single, “I Can’t Explain,” and on the follow-up, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, “Townshend was arguably the first in rock to use feedback as a soloing tool. Live at Leeds is an exhilarating display of his unique guitar violence, while Who’s Next, the Who’s greatest studio achievement, shows how much melody and beauty there was inside Townshend’s thunder and lightning.

49. John McLaughlin
After playing with British Blues Bands in the mid-Sixties, McLaughlin moved to New York, where he helped pioneer the jazz rock that became known as fusion in the early Seventies. Miles Davis’ jazz-rock classic Bitches Brew doesn’t just feature McLaughlin, it also boasts a track named after him. In 1971, McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which combined the complex rhythms of Indian music with jazz harmonies and rock power chords. McLaughlin played blizzards of notes, clearly influenced by the sheets of sound of his idol, John Coltrane. The first two Mahavishnu albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, are every bit as incendiary as their titles suggest.

48. Joe Perry
Joe Perry has spent most of his three decades in Aerosmith being compared to Keith Richards: as the guitar pirate and songwriting foil to Aerosmith’s own Jagger, Steven Tyler. But Perry’s admiration for both Richards’ riffing and Jeff Beck’s screaming leads was grounded in blues and R&B: Perry’s immortal pimp-roll lick in “Walk This Way” was a natural progression from Aerosmith’s early covers of Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog” and James Brown’s “Mother Popcorn.” And everything Perry loves about Jimi Hendrix’s iridescent lyricism comes through in Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” one of the only power ballads worthy of the term.

47. T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker invented the guitar solo as we know it ”” he was the guy who figured out how to make an electric guitar cry and moan. Born in Texas in 1910, he was a bluesman touring the South by the age of fifteen. As early as 1935, he was playing primitive electric-guitar models. But he shocked everyone with his 1942 debut single, “Mean Old World,” playing bent notes, vibrato sobs and more wild new electric sounds that other guitarists hadn’t even dreamed of. Walker invented a new musical language, from the urban flash of “The Hustle Is On” to the dread of “Stormy Monday.” Through the Forties and Fifties, he led his suave L.A. jump-blues combo on classics such as “You’re My Best Poker Hand,” “I Know Your Wig Is Gone” and “Long Skirt Baby Blues.”

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46. Les Paul
Les Paul, born Lester Polfus in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9th, 1915, is a guitar inventor as well as a player. He was tinkering with electronics at age twelve and built his first guitar pickup from ham-radio parts in 1934. By 1941 ”” after a career as a hillbilly star under the names Hot Rod Red and Rhubarb Red ”” he had built the first solid-body electric guitar prototype. In 1952, Gibson began selling the Les Paul model, now a rock & roll standard. He was also a pioneer in multitrack recording and a staggeringly talented guitarist, cutting a string of futuristic pop hits with wife Mary Ford in the early Fifties.

45. Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa was a drummer (at age twelve) and composer (writing a string quartet in his teens) before he got serious about the guitar. But in his more than four decades on stage and record, Zappa ”” who died in 1993 ”” soloed with the same discipline and experimental appetite that he applied to the rest of his protean legacy: symphonies, doo-wop parody, big-band fusion, sociopolitical satire. For a man who ran his Mothers of Invention with an iron fist, Zappa was actually a joyful improviser who combined the melodic rigor of his orchestral ideals with the dirty, frenzied pith of his earliest love, 1950s R&B. He also came up with the best instrumental titles in the business, including “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” and “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky.”

44. Scotty Moore
Moore played electric on the eighteen epochal sides Elvis Presley cut for Sun Records in 1954 and ’55, including “That’s All Right,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Mystery Train.” His mix of country picking and bluesy bends would later be termed rockabilly. When the King signed with RCA, Moore went along with him, and the result was another round of classics: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Too Much” (the last featuring a particularly angular Moore solo). Later, Elvis would turn to Nashville and L.A. session guitarists, but when he wanted to reconnect with his roots for his 1968 comeback special, Moore got the call once again.

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43. Eddie Hazel
Hazel was the guitar visionary of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic empire. Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Hazel grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, where he fell in with Clinton’s funk mob. For the title track to Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain, Clinton famously asked Hazel to imagine the saddest possible thing. Thinking of his mother’s death, Hazel unleashed ten minutes of sad acid-rock guitar moans. “Maggot Brain” became a landmark, and Hazel inspired disciples from Sonic Youth to the Chili Peppers with a Strat full of cosmic slop. Hazel died in 1992. They played “Maggot Brain” at his funeral. You can still hear his soulfully twisted freakouts in P-Funk gems such as “I’ll Bet You,” “Music for My Mother” and “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On.”

42. Robert Fripp
Starting in 1969 with King Crimson, this native of Dorset, England, has helped define prog-rock guitar. Robert Fripp’s trademarks are swooping fuzz-tone solos that skirt the fringes of tonality; slashing rhythm parts in an array of tricky time signatures; intricate, finger-punishing single-note lines. In the mid-Seventies, Fripp and his friend Brian Eno invented the “Frippertronics” infinite tape-loop system, thus helping create a new subgenre: ambient music. As a sideman, Fripp played on David Bowie’s Heroes; as a producer, he handled Peter Gabriel’s second album and the Roches’ 1979 debut.

41. Clarence White
A child-prodigy bluegrass picker, White found early fame with the Kentucky Colonels, but he’s best remembered for his association with the Byrds. His classy twang first popped up on their 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday, came through loud and clear on 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo and only grew more important as the band delved further into country rock. White’s fame among players was sealed with his co-invention of the Parsons/ White StringBender, which enables a regular guitar to simulate a pedal steel. It’s used by everyone from Jimmy Page to Kirk Hammett. Sadly, the man who brought it to prominence died way too soon, mowed down by a drunk driver in 1973.

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